Florence Foster Jenkins Is a Screwball Comedy with a Heart

Florence (Meryl Streep) and St. Clair (Hugh Grant) laugh at the critics.
Florence (Meryl Streep) and St. Clair (Hugh Grant) laugh at the critics.

Throughout the history of music, there have been performers whose abilities fell way beyond (or below) accepted values of talent or musicianship but who nonetheless persisted in their art. Most, like Tiny Tim or Mrs. Miller, were treated as novelty acts. Others, like the Portsmouth Sinfonia, an orchestral ensemble said to have dismissed members who were caught practicing, have presented their lack of technique as an aesthetic principle. Whether taking to the microphone by force of will (Wild Man Fischer) or at the prodding of others (the Shaggs), outsider artists have made their voices heard, even when met by laughter, derision or, most often, total neglect.

And then there's the strange case of Florence Foster Jenkins, a wealthy patroness of the arts whose love of music drove her to cast herself as a gifted coloratura singer, despite an apparent indifference to the niceties of rhythm and pitch. (Listening to her recordings, you can almost feel the struggle of her accompanist as he energetically tries to counter-punch her off-notes). Despite her glaring shortcomings, Ms. Jenkins' enthusiasm and persistence won her a small fan base and even led to her 1944 Carnegie Hall debut at the age of 74, a few months before her death.

Director Stephen Frears, whose films have often followed characters well-versed in defining their own realities, whether they are criminals (The Grifters) or royalty (The Queen), uses the last year of Jenkins' life as the center of a raucous comedy, reshaping her tale from a nine-day wonder to an elaborate farcical story of identity and illusion. It's a screwball comedy in which Jenkins, her husband/manager St. Clair (Hugh Grant) and her befuddled pianist Cosme (Simon Helberg) walk a delicate line between the real world and the elaborate fantasy the aging dowager has constructed for them. Imagine, if you will, a Marx Brothers film in which Margaret Dumont takes center stage and the brothers are simply her supporting flunkies. As brilliantly embodied by a mugging Meryl Streep, Jenkins is a force of nature and her companions rebound in turn, careening through Manhattan to satisfy her whims and keep would-be hostile critics in line.

With screenwriter Nicholas Martin, Frears has recreated mid-century New York on a theatrical scale; ordinary folks fill the street and the residents of luxury penthouses reluctantly share the city with them. There's an unexpected beauty to the production, an old Hollywood version of Manhattan (but actually filmed on locations in Scotland and Liverpool) that adds a touch of fantasy to a (mostly) true fairy tale. Like the Hollywood comedies from the era it depicts, it's a relentlessly congenial film, where problems are resolved and even minor nuisances (a brassy showgirl whose laughter threatens to disrupt a Jenkins' recital) fall in line by the end. The closest thing the film can offer to a villain is columnist Earl Wilson, who gives Jenkins a bad review — but seems about as relevant as the old music critics and busybodies who frown at the dancing teenagers in 1950s rock & roll movies.

Most of Florence Foster Jenkins is unashamedly played for laughs (Helberg, well-known from the TV series The Big Bang Theory, proves to be a particularly versatile clown, gradually and with great resistance catching on to Jenkins' vast capacity for delusion). But it's also a profound and even tragic love story about ambition, self-identity and loyalty. Streep — no surprise here — is simply wonderful , capturing the absurdity of her character but also preserving her dignity. Like Tim Burton's Ed Wood, this is a film about a dreamer; it lets us see (or hear) the limits of Jenkins' talents, but never degrades her dream. With Florence Foster Jenkins, Frears and his collaborators have created something wonderful and unique: a screwball comedy with a heart.